Saving Leatherback Turtles through Maps

Rebecca Maxwell


Finding a balance between the needs of humans with those of the natural environment has always been a challenge. There is substantial difficulty trying to manage the Earth’s resources – its land, water, plants, and animals – because of many complex problems that arise in doing so. Different groups of people compete for access to natural resources, but what happens when these groups find themselves pushing a plant or animal species to the brink of extinction? Can global mapping projects solve these predicaments?

The Dwindling Leatherback Turtle Population

Leatherback turtles are one of those groups of animals dwindling in population numbers because of human activity, and a new mapping study from the Royal Society is hoping to find the right balance between the turtles and human interests in the Pacific Ocean. The leatherback sea turtle, also known by its scientific name Dermochelys coriacea, is the largest of all living turtles. Yet, this species is also one of the most endangered because its population has rapidly declined in recent decades. There are estimates that the numbers of these turtles have gone down as much as ninety percent since the 1980s.

Not surprisingly, the biggest threat to leatherback turtles is humans. In the Pacific Ocean, this danger comes from longline fishing industries that place thousands of hooks into the water in order to catch fish. The turtles are being killed when they swim into their lines in order to go after the bait and become entangled. It is not that the fisheries are doing this on purpose, though. The turtles and other marine life end up caught in this bycatch because of where these practices are being done.

Mapping Leatherback Turtles

This mapping project from the Royal Society is helping to alleviate the problem by locating the areas where the turtles and fisheries come into contact with each other. Researchers did this by mapping the movements of GPS-tracked turtles and combining that data with fishery locations. The problem, however, is much more complex. Dozens of nations use the Pacific Ocean for fishing, and it is not always clear who is in charge of different management zones. It also has proven difficult to locate problem areas where this bycatch is happening. Fisheries are not always willing to give information on where and when they are catching turtles.

On the other hand, the Royal Society hopes this fishery bycatch that is endangering leatherback turtles will soon become a thing of the past. According to the study’s lead author, John Roe, leatherback turtles revisit the same nesting beaches year after year, so if the fisheries are willing to relocate their lines, they can make the ocean a safer place for the turtles. Researchers involved in the study also point out that closing longline fishing to certain parts of the Pacific can promote both the survival of the turtles and the well-being of the commercial fishing industry.

In this case, the solution to saving the leatherback turtle is flexibility. If fisheries can move their lines to places the turtles are unlikely to visit, this will significantly reduce the numbers of turtles caught in their lines. Both mapping technology and international cooperation are vital for helping manage the interests of humans with those of these turtles.

Maps show probable relative interactions between leatherback turtles and industrial longline fisheries in the Pacific, over four quarters of the year. - See more at:
Maps show probable relative interactions between leatherback turtles and industrial longline fisheries in the Pacific, over four quarters of the year. (Top row: Q1-Q2. Bottom row: Q3-Q4.) Credit: Roe et al.


“GPS Traffic Maps for Leatherback Turtles Show Hotspots to Prevent Accidental Fishing Deaths.” Drexel University. N.p., 8 Jan. 2014. Retrieved 18 Jan. 2014. <>.

“Predicting bycatch hotspots for endangered leatherback turtles on longlines in the Pacific Ocean.” John H. Roe, Stephen J. Morreale, Frank V. Paladino, George L. Shillinger, Scott R. Benson, Scott A. Eckert, Helen Bailey, Pilar Santidrián Tomillo, Steven J. Bograd, Tomoharu Eguchi, Peter H. Dutton, Jeffrey A. Seminoff, Barbara A. Block, and James R. Spotila. Proc R Soc B 2014 281: 20132559.  Retrieved 18 Jan. 2014. <>.

Photo of author
About the author
Rebecca Maxwell
Rebecca Maxwell is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of subjects. She holds a B.A. in History from Boise State University. Rebecca has also been a contributing writer on

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!